The Black Tongue
by Anjana Basu
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Women are not born witches. Life makes them turn that way. If you want the truth of what I say, look at the facts: there are no young witches, no child witches.  All the women torn or hacked to pieces in the columns of the newspapers are old. Some of them are not even witches at all. Perhaps just women like me who discovered the gift of a black tongue when everything else had failed them. I didn't know I had a black tongue until all the pieces started falling into place. And not even then. 

We are not proud of our gifts. Pride is dangerous unless you have the strong-armed power to support it. A battalion of young men with smuggled machine guns whom you can let loose at night to make your predictions of disaster come true. Men who obey your commands without question or regret. Or a rich thakur husband with izzat four centuries long who can unleash death and destruction if one of his subjects just looks at him in the wrong way.  A woman with a black tongue is nothing unless she has men behind her. 

Otherwise she exercises her gift in secret, utters the dread word in anger in the dark. A black curse whispered on a black night that goes straight from her mouth to God's ear. If she does not do this, then the same dark night can bring her destruction. Actually, why night? The burning noon can explode in flame and consume her. How many times have you read of women being stripped and dragged through the fields till the skin is raked off their bones and the blood spatters the growing corn? Once every month? Every week? Ten men dragging a woman half their weight till the screaming thing that they drag becomes nothing human or recognisable, not someone's mother or wife or grandmother, just a thing that had to be killed. 

And behind them, egging them on, is a witch finder. She can be a she--a powerful she with a tongue so black that it is hard to withstand its power. But her tongue she says is white and she uses it to protect. Nirmala Barui is one of those and I know her, though she does not know me. Very pleasant for a witch finder--she has kajal around her eyes, lips that she reddens with paan juice and a flower tucked in her sleek oiled hair. You can hire Nirmala to find you a witch if you pay her enough--I don't know what she charges but her witch finding has bought her a colour TV and her son-in-law a new lorry. She's the most successful witch finder in the whole of Midnapore, she says, and I believe her. We've drunk tea together often and she's boasted of her accomplishments while showing me her new teacups. "It's so easy. You just have to have the gift." The teacups had come to her from money that she got for hunting down a witch in Patharpratima. That one was seventy-five, a grandmother whose three grandchildren had died one after the other. The doctor said it was malnutrition, chicken pox, a virus, but everyone in the village knew better, it was witchcraft. However, the men said, let us be fair, let us have a trial. So they tied the old woman to a pole in the middle of the village in the burning Jesthya sun and sent for Nirmala.

I'm told her technique is very impressive, unlike that of many other witch finders. She has to wait for the auspicious hour when she will cast the bones and blow the conch. I must be fair, she said, sitting at the foot of the pole while the sun drew the life out of Nanibala. She cast the bones three times and got, she told me, the same answer. The old woman was undoubtedly a witch. So they left her tied to the pole for three days without food or water--no violence, Nirmala told them, do not raise your hands to her, who knows what will happen--till the sun that May sun did their work for them.

Yes, you have to have the gift. A gift for hatred. I don't know how Nirmala came by the gift or why she uses it against other women, but I do know that a woman taught me how to hate. She is the one who put the black into my tongue. Oh, a very different woman from all these. She lives in the city, in a tall house with a tall husband and a son. She has a red Maruti car as bright and shining as a tomato--no, she had a shiny red Maruti, I used to drive in it once, twice, I've forgotten how many times. Had--the Maruti is gone now. I don't mean to say that things are different in the city. The difference is only on the surface--because you have witches and witch finders in the city too though they don't always behave in the same way there. 

She had everything, this woman, when I had nothing at all. And she took everything from me--my home, my future. And she left me my life. In a village that would have been enough to doom her--if I had been powerful enough. I would have summoned up a witch finder and said, "She is a witch, she has cursed me." But in those days I didn't know any of this. I sat in my place of exile and brought her face into my mind and thought of all the things that I wished her, one by one. 

This village, our desh, is a small two-TV-set village. When I got there it only had one TV set and the panchayat would meet under the banyan tree and debate how to collect money to build a meeting hall. That was less than my shantytown bustee had. When I climbed out of the train all those years ago, there was no one to meet me at the station and the station itself was just a shed in the middle of wide flat plain with the sun beating down out of a faded blue sky. The tracks stretched in both directions, running out of my sight, one set I knew crossing the border, the other going to the city where I belonged no more.

The second TV set now is mine--earned after years of writing letters for the village and filling in for the village schoolmaster. Whatever letters leave the village leave it in my handwriting--love letters, mother-sick letters, lies, truths, curses and all. It will continue to be that way until one of the children from the school is interested enough to take my place. I started writing those letters from the day I set foot in the village because that was the idea that lurched into my father’s head.

That was twenty years ago. If I had known when I stepped out of the train that I was exiling myself for twenty years, I would have tied a pitcher round my neck and thrown myself into the nearest pond. But I didn't know--so the ponds around our village remained flat unsympathetic bodies of water, furred over with hyacinth leaves. Twenty years. If I stuck my tongue out at that sheet of water it would probably reflect black at me. But I don't--someone might see and send word to Nirmala. You never know when someone might see. 

Of course, I have been careful. The others who were accused had tidy little homes and money. They stood in someone's way--a nephew, a son-in-law, a brother. My father is still alive--barely. If you come to my hut, you will see a sack lying in one corner of the porch, a large blackened leather sack, and you will wonder what I keep in that sack and why it lies exposed to the open air in all weathers. You will wonder until the sack moves and groans. My father, always drunk, always looking for money to be more drunk.

When my mother was alive, she sent money--more after I came here, knowing that I would hide it away. That is the other thing I cannot forgive. The first time she came down we had to meet in secret because if Baba saw her he might turn violent. She sent me a message from the station by one of the other women who knew the whole situation and we sat under a tree and talked. "When can I go home?" I asked.

She turned her face away. "I don't know," she said on a sigh. "I told your boro bhai. He says that it is best you stay here." 

"Here!" My disgust took in the flat plain and cows with their bones sticking out like ploughshares near their hips. "To do what? Learn to plough?"

"There are worse things," Ma answered. "If you had only studied as I told you." She sighed again. "I thought you were dead. We all thought you were dead!" 

"And I might as well be dead! That woman--I hope she's miserable!" The word welled out of me on a gush of hate and spattered the blue cotton wool air. I almost expected the sky to turn black.

"Omni boltey neyi," Ma said. "You shouldn't talk like that."

"But she should pay."

"She will pay. Your boro bhai is seeing to that. It might mean that I will be able to send you more money." 

She told me what they were doing; though in snatches, hastily, looking over her shoulder. There were always people to carry word to Baba. "Aren't you going to see him?" I asked.

"Not this time," she answered. "Here." She pushed a bundle of notes at me. "Bury it under a tree. Just make sure that your Baba does not find it."

The day I came to our desh was the day I uttered my first curse. And that was the day that I started collecting and hiding the money. Not all of it, because it would have made Baba suspicious, but bit by bit. I didn't know that I had uttered my first curse, but that night I had a dream. I dreamt of a house surrounded by people carrying sticks and stones. And I saw her standing on the rooftop with her husband drowning in that sea. When I woke up, my string bed shook and I heard the birds cawing and screaming outside. The earth had turned in its sleep and shaken the village. My bed shook once, twice, thrice. Then the birds settled again and the conchshells blew from the small temple. My rage had shaken the earth, I thought, and knew that the power was in me.

Nirmala told me, "I discovered my first witch when I was sixteen. Shaila, an old woman who had no family. I was taking mangoes from her tree--you know, young green mangoes to eat with chillies"--she licked her lips as she said that with her fat red paan stained tongue--"and the woman came out screaming and throwing stones. I climbed out of the tree as fast as I could and started to run. Believe me, my way was clear, but my foot turned and I fell on those hard green mangoes and was bruised all over. What would you call that if not witchcraft?"

"And then?" I asked.

"I fixed her. She overreached herself. Too many people were dying all around her place, in her fields. Four years later I threw a fit by the tubewell and said she had bewitched me." 

"You have the illness that causes fits?" I asked, meaning epilepsy.

She laughed pityingly. "It's easy to throw fits. You rub soap in your eyes and chew some of it so that you foam at the mouth--washing bar soap.I screamed her name over and over again.” She looked at me with her sly small eyes. “It’s so easy.”

Was that what I should have done? Chewed bar soap and rolled around? Not that that occurred to me when I was going to her house. “What happened to the woman?”

“She was a witch--what do you expect happened to her?” Shaila was denounced and stripped. Her son-in-law gave Nirmala the woman's  best sari and told the village that she should be cherished. “They said the goodness ran so strongly in me that it could not tolerate the presence of evil.” She looked at me consideringly. “You never know--it might run strongly in you as well.”

“How do I know whether it does?”

“You ask your dreams. You walk in the fields and let the wind talk to you. And you pray--always you do puja for guidance.” That I would have guessed: her two-room brick hut reeked of incense and husks of coconut shells rolled on the ground outside, brown coconuts, the symbol of human sacrifice. “Prayers to Ma Kali, queen of the night.” She dropped her voice, “And of course you must learn some spells of your own, so you can combat theirs. Nothing too complicated, and it must be done secretly, very secretly.” She sat back and laughed, her cheeks pushing up and creasing her eyes shut. “But be careful, or people will think you are a witch!”

“Why are you telling me this?” I asked.

“Because you’re the village letter writer-- you know everyone’s secrets. And because if you tell anyone that I said this I will denounce you as a witch. And no one will believe that you are not. It’s so easy!” The power ran through me as she sat there, and I thought shall I call out my tongue, shall I let its blackness out to mar this woman's  life as she has marred hundreds of others’? But the anger was not there. I did not hate the woman as I  hated the other one. “You’re safe,” I told her. “I wouldn’t have said anything anyway.”

I walked out of her home hearing her self-satisfied laugh. She was rich--that pukka house must have cost her a lakh or more. How much money had she made for all those men for whom she had hunted out witches? Chillies and coconuts could be used for good as well as evil. Chillies burnt to blind the eyes of evil and coconuts used to trap the human soul. I didn’t know any of that when I began my cursing, I ran her name round and round in my head. I traced it with my finger on the running water so that it would ebb away. I wrote it on the pond side in mud as black as my hair and trampled it flat.

The other girls wondered what I was doing, and then I realised that I had to be careful. Especially after the first ‘daini’ call spread like wildfire through our village. I saw the woman being dragged out of her hut before I knew what was happening. She was a young woman who was having an affair with the carpenter. Even I, new as I was to the village, had heard about the affair with the carpenter--they met in the farthest field where the palash trees grew thick and showered the grass with their flame flowers in summer. Even her husband knew--he could not have helped it. Finally, he was the one who denounced her. “Who is she?” I asked, “what’s happening.”

”She’s a witch, a daini. Come, come, let’s look!” What was there to do beyond wash clothes, run through the household chores, write letters for other people and make sure my father ate something through all the liquid that he consumed? We ran after the men, listening to the screams and watching like we watched the monkey man and the chhau dancers. No one thought of lifting a hand to protest--and in any case, we were just more women. What would we have done? But I thought as I ran, if something like that can happen to a woman who is not a witch, it could happen to me--and I am a witch. So I honed my tongue and mind in secret, waiting for my mother’s visits to tell me whether my hatred had struck.

Read other stories in Gowanus by Anjana Basu:

"The Flame, the Amulet and the Scarlet Bras"
"The Moth"
"Spectacles" (from her novel The Price of a Dynsaty)
"Footprints on the Wall"
"The Journals of William Clifford"
"Curses & Poetry" (From the Novel Curses in Ivory

(Anjana Basu's first novel Curses in Ivory was published by HarperCollins India in January 2003. She is also the author of Rhythms of Darkness, Chinku and the Wolf Boy, Tiger,Tiger, In the Shadow of the Leaves, and The Agency Raga, a collection of short stories. Her poems have been featured in an anthology published by Penguin India. )